Why You Should Spend Less Time With Your Co-founders
If you're going to be basically sleeping under your desk to get your start-up off the ground, why not make things a little more comfortable and actually merge your place of business with your place of residence? At least you'll have a proper bed handy.
That's the thinking laid out by Victor Ho and Matt Dok, co-founders of business loyalty network FiveStars, recently. The pair came up with an elegant solution to the long hours demanded by starting their company: They cohabitated and then had early employees move in too.
"We locked ourselves in a room for three months straight, had ramen for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and taught ourselves Python. We transformed our living room into a work space. We’d wake up, walk 20 feet down the hall, sit down at the table, not move except to eat, then go to bed," Ho tells Fast Company, claiming the unusual arrangements helped the team be more innovative and productive, save money and instill a horizontal, hierarchy-free culture.
Too Much Togetherness
But this approach isn't for everyone. Charlie Tribbett and Larry Baker, the founding team behind small business crowdfunding site Bolstr, at first tried something a slightly less extreme form of constant togetherness.
"When we first started working together we actually set up a fold out table and sat across from each other all day with our laptops," Tribbett told Inc. "We had just quit our jobs—structured, finance jobs. Unaccustomed working outside of an office, the fold-out table seemed like a good idea. And early on, it was. That works tyle helped us maintain focus. But over time it became a distraction."
The pair found that they were actually taking the homey vibe too far, becoming so companionable that they ended up simply hanging out when they should have been working.
"It became very easy to spend chunks of time chatting about things unrelated to Bolstr," says Tribbett. In response the pair decided on a trial separation, working remotely from their separate apartments, but that approach "led to some fragmentation. It became a little more difficult to iterate the broader strategy for the company and product. And projects that required collective collaboration became more challenging to knock out."
The solution for this team was a middle way. "We’ve found that 2-3 days a week in the same space lets us set the week’s agenda, talk strategy and whiteboard. We then prioritize, divide, and conquer the remainder of the week," says Tribbett.
Bad for Bonding?
But, argue some credible voices in the start-up community (including VC Mark Suster), doesn't working at a distance reduce opportunities for a team to build a culture of camaraderie and a basis for trust?
To which Tribbett responds: there's no reason you can't build company culture over chat and video. Some young startup teams create camaraderie, he says, by "staying up late and working hard together. This is actually true for us too—it’s just done through technology. We have an open chat called 'The Watercooler' where team members chat about anything. Sometimes work-related, sometimes not."
While the team believes a Bolstr HQ is in the company's future, at these early stages of the start-up the 24/7 work-life mash-up model just didn't pay dividends, concludes Tribbet, and he doubts he's alone in being unable to resist the lure of socializing.
"There are a lot of inefficiencies that are born out of the sexiness of start-ups. For the young startup in a coworking space, it takes discipline to not partake in every nerf fight or happy hour," he says. "For us, though, with flexibility comes responsibility. The luxury of working from wherever means high standards of accountability."
In your experience, could some start-up teams sometimes get more done by spending less time together?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.